Putting a punch into the Prancing Horse

Ferrari 308GTBi Quattrovalvole

“Quattrovalvole” proclaims a discreet little legend on the rear of the latest Ferrari 308GTBi, one of the few outward visual signs that the smallest of Maranello’s delectable road coupés is any different to its forbears which have been a regular sight on the roads of Europe for more than six years. When D.S.J. assessed the original, carburated 308GTB within the pages of the December, 1976, issue of Motor Sport, he didn’t quite damn the car with faint praise, but he did make it very clear that he felt that the marque’s endearing idiosyncracies “seem to have been discreetly swept away by the dead hand of Fiat.” Those who’d enjoyed the delightful fittle Dino 246GT, which seemed to become happier and happier the more it was revved, initially professed themselves to be quite happy with the 308GTB, even if the standard of workmanship applied to this two-seater coupé failed to reach the standards expected from a £12,000 motorcar. But with a reputed 255 b.h.p. available at 6,600 r.p.m. and 209 ft./lb. torque at 5,000 r.p.m., there was no doubt that it was an exciting car to drive. Unfortunately, the necessity to fit fuel injection, partly to comply with emission control requirements for the United States market, later saw the power output stifled to 214 b.h.p. (with a corresponding drop in torque), slicing the best part of 10 m.p.h. off the car’s top speed and dampening its appeal to those who’d experienced the original machine.

Slightly under two years ago Motor Sport tested the Mondial 8, two-plus-two central-engined coupé which was then quite new on the British market. It was the writer’s first experience of the Ferrari V8 engine, only the 4.4-litre Daytona V12 and Dino 246GT V6 having previously come his way for road test purposes. We were intpressed by the Mondial, of that there is no question, but once over 5,000 r.p.m. one was definitely conscious that the acceleration was tailing off and by the time 6,000 r.p.m. had been reached (just under 125 m.p.h.) it really was beginning to be a bit of a slog to ease any extra speed out of it. At the time the Mondial’s claimed top-speed was in the order of 150 m.p.h. and we remarked that we didn’t really feel that an example straight from the production line would be good for more than 140 m.p.h. Only when we tried the comparable 308GTBi, with its newly fitted cylinder heads, did we realise that we had been missing out quite badly and that there was rather more to the latest V8 Ferrari than simply the addition of the extra inlet and exhaust valves.

The bare facts of the matter are that the “quattrovalvole” now produces 240 b.h.p. at 7,000 r.p.m. and 191 lb./ft. torque at 5,000 r.p.m. from its 81 x 71 mm., 2,927 c.c., 90-degree V8 engine. The Ferrari factory’s latest brochure makes the point that it has applied a lot of its F1 “know-how” to the development of these cylinder heads (which are also added to the Mondial’s specification, incidentally) and since the design and engineering work was carried out at Maranello it’s not difficult to imagine the bespectacled Mauro Forghieri taking an interested glance over the road car engineers’ shoulders from time to time as work progressed on these alterations. It’s also interesting that, as a parallel to the four valve head development, a turbocharged 2-litre V8 version has also been developed, the capacity reduction achieved by a smaller bore while retaining the same stroke. This machine unfortunately is only marketed in Italy, where peculiar tax laws heavily penalise any car over 2-litres: a shame, because we would like to have compared it against the four-valve 3-litre V8.

As we said, it wasn’t simply a case of slapping on a four valve head and leaving it at that. A great deal of thought went into such things as the shape of the combustion chambers, the volumetric efficiency and revisions to the water-cooling passages. The compression ratio has been increased from 8.8:1 to 9.2:1 and the heads are fashioned from an aluminium / silicon alloy. Valve seats are of a purpose-made special cast steel, valve guides are of tellurium copper and the exhaust valves of nimonic alloy, already well tested by the marque’s F1 engines but now employed for the first time by Ferrari in production road car engines. Bosch K-Jetronic mechanical fuel injection ensures a crisp response from the transverse-mounted V8 engine which, as before, drives through a catchy, adequately precise five-speed manual gearbox mated to a dry single plate mechanically operated clutch.

Since we tested that original 308GTB in 1976, other aspects of Ferrari’s production engineering have also improved. The finish, both of the body and the interior, are dramatically improved and the paint finish is of a lustrous quality, even though our test car was an appealing dark blue rather than the blazing red true Ferrari buffs would more fully approve of. The tasteful blend of light tan and black leather in the snug two-seater cockpit complemented the external high standards and there was no trace of the irritating rattles or water leaks which have been referred to by 308 testers in the past. As we noted at the time of the Mondial 8 test, a tremendous amount of attention has been lavished on the Ferrari’s finish and it is this factor, allied to the V8 engine’s delightful blend of performance and flexibility which makes the 308GTBi and its similarly engined stablemate such a realistic alternative to BMW, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz for use in everyday motoring.

Any driver over six feet tall will find that headroom is pretty limited inside the 308GTBi and the writer reckoned he could do with about half an inch more on the rearward adjustment of the comfortable seat which offers just enough support without being excessively firm. But this is a minor complaint. Far more irritating was the fact that the tinted anti-dazzle strip blending into the upper edge of the gently sloping windscreen tends to “chop-offs’ a tall driver’s forward vision. There is also an annoying reflection from the instruments into the screen which becomes much worse at night when all the warning lights on the fascia are projected upwards into one’s line of sight. We and others commented on this back in 1976, so it’s a shame that this rather elementary problem hasn’t been rectified.

All such ergonomic grumbles fade away, however, once you turn the key and fire up the V8 engine into willing action. Starting from cold in the mornings requires one to keep well clear of the throttle pedal lest the engine become flooded with fuel, but once the V8 has warmed up it will start at the first turn of the key. The Ferrari’s five speed gearbox is controlled by the familiar notchy change running within the evocative open metal gate with which Maranello enthusiasts will be so familiar. First gear, away from the driver and dog-legged back towards the left, is a giant pain to engage, and the change from first to second gear needs a well-practised mixture of firmness and caution. If you hurry it unduly, second just doesn’t seem to want to engage: if you’re too gentle, then the spring-loading seems to take over and literally flicks the lever out of your hand as it comes out of first. But second to fifth, in a conventional “H” pattern, proves to be no problem at all. In fact, apart from moving sway from standstill, first isn’t really needed at all, the 308GTBi will pull from walking pace in second gear and the engine’s tremendous flexibility enables one to dribble along in second and third in the middle of London’s stifling rush hour traffic. One is aided in this task by a splendidly light and smooth clutch operation, contrasting with that on the Mondial of two years ago. In fact the pedals seemed all perfectly placed to my mind and heel-and-toeing was simplicity itself, even for those who like the lazy way and simply roll the side of their right foot off the edge of the brake and onto the throttle.

My colleague D.S.J. found the steering wheel too small for his taste and other short people may agree with him that it is angled too sharply. However, that’s where being tall helped. From my point of view the wheel size and position was absolutely perfect, although the rim’s proximity to the padded fascia cowling meant that my knuckles rubbed against that padding whilst swinging the wheel through the “twelve o’clock position. Unlike the Mondial, the 308GTBi doesn’t have a steering column instantly adjustable for length although Maranello Concessionaires tell me that the wheel is adjustable for rake — but this is a job for the workshop, not simply an instant adjustment for the owner. Although the instrumentation is comprehensive, the speedometer and matching rev. counter surrounded by oil pressure, water temperature and fuel contents gauges, they are not as clearly calibrated as one would like, particularly with the instrument lighting turned on. Oil pressure runs consistently at 85 lb./sq. in. and water temperature at 160 degrees. A word of warning, however: don’t trust the fuel gauge. It was still flickering above the empty stop when 308GTBi spluttered to a standstill in a traffic jam, its tank almost bone dry. Fortunately we were within sight of a garage which accepted the convenient and appropriate credit card an didn’t turn into the drama it might have done.

This all independently suspended, four-wheel disc braked Ferrari, running on its Michelin TRX 205/55 VR390 radials, offers a well balanced ride which is just sufficiently taut to provide excellent handling without being harsh enough to impart a bumpy ride for the occupants. It’s probably not quite as good as a Lotus Eclat, for example, but certainly doesn’t have that characteristic “coarseness” by which most Porsche models can be identified. Like so many high performance cars it felt smoother and more responsive the harder it was driven. At low speed the steering feels somewhat dead and distant from the road wheels, but the faster one presses the 308GTBi, the more fluid and enjoyable the whole package becomes. There is a reassuring touch of roll and although I was, surprisingly perhaps, aware of a trace too much understeer for my taste, this probably comes down to a matter of personal opinion. The steering is a little low geared for too much enthusiastic motoring round tight hairpins and the high level of rear end adhesion means you can’t easily make it break away and slide round very slow tight turns unless the surface is loose or slippery. So the 308GTBi isn’t really a “tight country lane” car, but on open, gently sweeping “B” and “C” routes it really comes into its own and a day’s motoring romp round the Salisbury Plain area, in the surprisingly mild and sunny weather conditions which we enjoyed during January, proved to be joyful motoring experience the like of which we’ve not had for a long time.

Despite having to encompass several dubious first-to-second changes on that only adequate gearbox, the 0-60 m.p.h. time of 6.1 sec. reveals this Ferrari to be a highly impressive performer. And provided that you can change gear cleanly, 80 m.p.h. comes up in ten seconds from standstill and 100 m.p.h. in 15.8 sec. Top speeds seen in the gears were 43 m.p.h. (first), 60 m.p.h. (second), 86 m.p.h. (third), and 115 m.p.h. (fourth), in all cases, I have to confess, with the V8 fluttering against its electronic rev. limiter. The claimed top speed is fractionally over 150 m.p.h., although we didn’t see more than 137 m.p.h. owing to the lack of room rather than the car’s potential. But at that speed the 308GTBi was still pulling adequately in contrast, as we’ve mentioned before, to the old 2-valve V8 machine. Intermediate acceleration figures were equally impressive, particularly in fourth gear, and far more relevant than the car’s ultimate speed. The feeling of security that this Ferrari’s fourth gear overtaking performance imparts has to be sampled to be believed, and its ability to sprint from 60 m.p.h. to 80 m.p.h. in less than six seconds means that traffic queues and slow-moving lorries can be dealt with in the minimum possible time, and so with more safety. Of course, such performance tends to focus the mind extremely well, but since one can’t guarantee that everybody else is paying so much attention to their driving, it’s heartening to feel the large servo-assisted ventilated disc brakes (11″ diameter front, 11.8″ diameter rear) reacting with splendid precision time and again and demonstrating no signs of fade whatsoever throughout the duration of our test.

With not quite such a low overall gearing in top as the Mondial (21.14 m.p.h. per 1000 r.p.m. as opposed to 19.87 m.p.h. per 1000 r.p.m. on the slightly heavier two-plus-two coupé), the 308GTBi returned a very respectable overall fuel consumption of 20.1 m.p.g. during the course of 700 miles’ motoring which encompassed City commuting, gentle top gear motorway cruising and enthusiastic third fourth gear sprinting on second, routes. It therefore isn’t beyond the realms of possibility to envisage a consumption of 23/24 m.p.g. if the 308GTBi is handled with a degree of reasonable restraint. By any objective super-car standards, that is extremely impressive and certainly very efficient.

Secondary controls are mounted on the steering column stalks (flip-up headlights, windscreen wiper / washers and indicators) and onto an overcrowded console between the seats where you will find switches and levers controlling the electric windows, air conditioning, hazard flashers, three speed fan, variable speed control for the wipers and rear foglights. Although demisting isn’t carried out with dramatic effectiveness in this Ferrari, I do particularly like the separate temperature and use direction controls for each passenger’s footwell. Storage space is very restricted. with only a couple of pockets in the doors allied to a modest, zip-covered luggage compartment in the tail, behind the V8 engine.

The question of the reliability and durability of today’s Ferrari range is something that can only be reported with the passing of time: by all accounts we’ve heard that the cars stand the test of time significantly better than equivalent models marketed ten years ago. Remember, these are thoughts for the essentially practical: nobody buys a Ferrari with longevity as his foremost criterion. But if today’s £23,172 Ferrari 308GTBi survives the rigours of time in an impressive manner, then so much the better. So for the moment, just sit back and wind up the newly realised potential of that free-revving, four-valves per cylinder V8 with the rev. counter needle shooting round to beyond 6000 r.p.m. and, hopefully, the traffic evaporating in front of those menacing front wings, all’s well with the World. There can be few other experiences like it. A.H.